Colorado hash oil explosion numbers on the rise
EAGLE-VAIL — An Eagle-Vail man accused of causing a hash oil explosion had his initial court date postponed so he could be treated for burns he suffered.
Instead, Ryne Wilhelmi, 24, was being treated in a Front Range hospital. When his hash oil cooker exploded just past noon Wednesday, Wilhelmi suffered second degree burns over 25 percent of his body, according to the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office.
About two hours after the explosion, Wilhelmi called the Vail Daily to tell his side of the story.
He says he was safely using a legal closed-loop system, outside, designed to capture and recycle the butane gas used extracting THC oil from marijuana leaves. A valve malfunctioned and static electricity from his sweatshirt ignited the leaking butane, he said.
The Sheriff’s Office said closed-loop systems cannot be used in a residential area.
Wilhelmi is facing three felonies, including arson, and a misdemeanor.
It’s a felony, DA says
District Attorney Bruce Brown isn’t particularly interested in geography — where Wilhelmi was cooking his hash oil, or what sort of system he was using.
“I believe it’s manufacturing of a controlled substance and we’ll be filing charges in connection with that,” Brown said.
Wilhelmi said his system is legal.
“He is presumed innocent at this point, and he can have a defense attorney help him argue that,” Brown said. “We are happy to have that judge and jury determine that, as is his right.”
Brown says it’s a public safety issue.
“Not only are there criminal laws against this, there are local laws regarding zoning,” Brown said. “It’s manufacturing in a residential building. It’s not allowed any more than manufacturing widgets would be allowed.”
Banking and butane
Marijuana manufacturing in Colorado faces two major problems: banking and butane, said Belita Nelson, a former national spokeswoman for the DEA living in Colorado.
State lawmakers are tackling butane first.
Colorado House Bill 1305 would require that hash oil operations:
• Be done away from any residences,
• Be done in a well-ventilated indoor facility.
• Be inspected and licensed by a local fire department.
“We have the most liberal laws on the planet. Obey them. If you don’t, it will go away,” Nelson said.
The bill is sponsored by two Republicans and two Democrats.
The Senate Appropriations Committee hears the bill first thing this morning. If it passes there, then it goes back to the full Senate on Monday.
“We want them licensed and inspected because they’re mechanical, and things can go wrong,” Nelson said.
On January 2014, a Denver lab blew up 96 canisters, Nelson said. Four people were injured.
If the bill passes, then cooking hash oil without a license would become a Class 2 felony and could carry a 20-year prison sentence under Colorado law.
In Colorado, commercial operators are subject to several pages of state detailed regulations to which they must adhere.
Hash oil cash
People cook their own hash oil for higher highs and more money, said Kevin Wong, an intelligence analyst with Colorado High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
The THC content — the substance in marijuana that creates euphoria — can reach 80-90 percent. A joint can be 20-30 percent, Wong said.
Then there’s the money.
Hash oil prices are all over the map. Ads offer to sell it for as much $1,000 for a one-ounce bottle. Others sell it for $35-$40 an ounce.
Because hash oil is concentrated, it costs less to ship than weed. It also doesn’t smell as strong, Wong said.
“Why would you take the chance of packing weed in a zip-lock bag or a vacuum-seal bag? It stinks and it costs more to ship it,” Wong explained.
A closed-loop system can cost between $5,000-$30,000, and they’re the industry standard, Wong said. On the other hand, you can go to the grocery store and buy the items that you will need for about $30.
Cheap, however, comes with a price.
“In a makeshift system, the fumes are in the air around you, they’re on your skin, in your clothes. People carry it across the room and if they drag their feet, they create static electricity and they’re on fire. Or they light one up and cause an explosion.”
A hash oil explosion can look like about any other type of household fire.
“Not every lab has a refrigerator door blown across the room. That’s not normal,” Wong said.
Last year, Colorado had 32 hash oil explosions resulting in 30 serious injuries, and those are the ones we know about, Wong said.
Those 32 explosions do not include the number of places that first responders have gone to and found labs that have not yet exploded, which Wong said are labs waiting to explode.
“How many millions of dollars are insurance companies paying?” Wong said. “You and I are paying higher premiums because of that.”
It’s part of the Wild West that Colorado’s marijuana industry still is.
“A couple years ago, no one was aware what a THC extraction lab was,” Wong said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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